It was meant to be the defining moment in the resistance. It was destined to be the Battle of Stalingrad in the anti-racism war. Over 5 years ago, Kevin Prince Boateng’s brave defiance forced a match between AC Milan and Pro Patria to be abandoned after 25 minutes, his stiff will unbending to the egregious chants hurled at him from the stands. In a show of unity, captain Massimo Ambrosini ordered the team to follow suit in support, and a line was drawn. All over the footballing world, solace poured in from players and coaches alike, and it appeared as if the mobilized resistance would force the hand of the tyrants. Five years on, and the tyrants remain mute and irresolute in their action against the forces of racism.
Enough is enough. ‘Say No To Racism’ banners are not enough. Promotional ads featuring the biggest superstars condemning racism are not enough. Insignificant fines and sharp words are not enough. Superficial anti-racism campaigns are not enough. Words need to be replaced by action.
Football is meant to unify. If we all looked at it through the eyes of Juan Mata, maybe the game would be all the more beautiful. Here he is, describing the moments of euphoria immediately after Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League Final win over Bayern: “as we were celebrating, I looked around at my teammates and saw the beauty of football. A keeper from the Czech Republic. A defender from Serbia and another from Brazil. Midfielders from Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain and England. And, of course, one incredible striker from Cote d’Ivoire. We came from all over the world, from different circumstances and spoke many different languages. But there we were, all standing together in Germany as champions of Europe. To me, that is something that can change the world for the better.”
If the footballing world took a page out of Juan Mata’s book, the game would be a much better place. Unfortunately, the innate righteousness of Common Goal’s founder is not bestowed in the souls of all fans. And even worse still is that such goodness isn’t found in the soul of every player that graces the pitch.
As much as FIFA, UEFA, and domestic leagues claim to do, it is not enough. Time and time again, we have seen, witnessed, or heard about countless racial conflicts that plague the game. Just this year, Blaise Matuidi, Samuel Umtiti, and Michy Batshuayi have all been subjected to alleged racial chants, to name only a few of the high-profile cases that have shed light onto the disease of racism that continues to infect the game.
Although FIFA claim their position on racism is unequivocal, their actions indicate otherwise. Likewise, ‘Say No To Racism’ banners masquerade the non-intervention and incompetence entrenched within UEFA, while leagues such as the Serie A and La Liga lack the guts to tackle racism with any degree of earnest.
Starting at the Top
To begin with, we must analyze the inner workings of a federation as broad as FIFA. FIFA, which stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, seeks to “promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all.” More importantly, they claim to commit themselves to human rights and diversity, ensuring that their stakeholders are held to appropriate standards of governance.
Already, this final claim comes into question when one considers the various controversies of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. For starters, several reports have alleged that South American FIFA officials accepted bribes for their votes. Furthermore, the working conditions in Qatar equate to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation. Evidence shows that workers have gone unpaid for months, have had their passports confiscated by employers, have been denied access to drinking water in scorching conditions, and have been exploited to prepare for the illustrious global tournament. The sheer amount of deaths during the construction phase has brought worldwide attention to the injustices in Qatar, but FIFA have yet to act on the issue.
Even nearer in proximity is the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Russia has a long history of racism-related incidents in the sport, with former Zenit St. Petersburg player Hulk claiming he was the target of monkey chants nearly every game during his 4 seasons at the club. Everything from anti-Semitic banners to segregated stadiums can be found in Russia, but according to their football union, their track record is spotless. Despite this claim, Russia is still a hot spot for racism, yet FIFA seem to be confident that embers will not fly during their main event. Beyond that, FIFA has acknowledged human rights violations at construction sites in Russia, but as usual, sought little punishment for the host nation. As innocent workers continue suffering in intolerable conditions, the men at the top of the food chain look the other way, their relative silence a by-product of corruption.
What is disturbing about the game’s broadest organization is the off-the-wall comments made by executives. The most worrying statement comes from out of touch ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who once said issues of racism on the pitch could be solved with a simple handshake. When the authority lies with such a man, efforts to prevent and punish racism stand little chance. Although measures have been taken to grant the referee power to stop a game because of fan racism, it is just one small step on a mile-long path to justice.
In 2016, FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force after only three years of operation, claiming it was dissolved after it “fulfilled its temporary mission.” One of its members, Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and journalist, was left disillusioned by the organization’s half-hearted efforts. Unresolved issues and inaction led him to reveal that the task force held no meetings under the chairmanship of Constant Omari, who served as task force chairman for a year after Jeffrey Webb was arrested for corruption. Obayiuwana says that initial meetings were scheduled at times when active players would not be released by their respective clubs, which struck him as odd given their protagonistic role in the fight.
No one who wants to earnestly defeat racism would call for the end of a committee that was just getting off the ground. Whether or not significant progress was made by the task force is up for debate, but its dissolution is a worrying sign for racism combatants. It seems as if FIFA believes football and racism are inextricably linked, and that no effort will help to diminish the role it plays in the beautiful game. The iron fist of justice has transformed into a floppy rod of rubber under the reign of FIFA. Some hoped that Gianni Infantino would wield a stronger fist against the injustices, but his resolve has proven weak. Racism continues to be swept under the rug at the highest echelons of the game, and money will keep the heads of the powerful turned the other way.
As xenophobia and discrimination run rampant worldwide in this Trumpian era, FIFA could serve as a lynchpin for unity and peace. Instead, corruption leads them to ignore discrimination and ride the wave of power as far as it may travel.
UEFA: Europe’s Faltering Body
UEFA is next in line in the football organizational hierarchy. The Union of European Football Associations is Europe’s governing body and consists of 55 national members. Although scandals and corruption do not run as deep in the organization, UEFA aren’t without their fair share of incompetency, controversy, and inaction. They’ve taken stronger positions against racism, advocating 10-match bans compared to FIFA’s 5; however, as Rhian Brewster knows, their anti-racism banners and adverts are mainly for show.
Recent years have witnessed UEFA strengthen their positions against racism. Stricter bans and sanctions have been approved for players, fans, and clubs, but enforcement has been the main challenge. Warnings have been issued, fines have been dished out, but simply not enough has been done. For instance, UEFA fined Portuguese club Porto $26,000 in 2012 for racial abuse directed at Mario Balotelli, whilst also charging Manchester City $39,000 for taking the field a minute late after halftime in a match against Sporting Lisbon. If a lack of punctuality is a greater crime than racism, UEFA should dissolve as a governing body altogether. The sheer discrepancy in the differing fines highlights the core hypocrisy entrenched in the organization, and it isn’t just a one-time offense. Arsene Wenger’s ‘improper conduct’ towards an official was deemed equally punishable as monkey chants directed at Ashley Young, Ashley Cole, and Theo Walcott in a Euro 2012 match in Sofia. Legend Nicklas Bendtner was fined $125,000 and handed a one-game competitive ban by UEFA because of his “Paddy Power” boxers celebration, whereas Lazio was hit with just a $52,000 fine after their fans directed monkey chants towards Spurs’ Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon, and Andros Townsend.
UEFA’s Control and Disciplinary Body has been criticized throughout the recent years due to its paltry fines and light punishment. Critics have no reason to hold back. Their inconsistent punishments encourage further racism as entities recognize their unwillingness to levy harsh decisions against them. Although recent years have seen the organization collaborate with several agencies and clamp down on certain allegations, several cases have shed light on the inaction that remains within the agency.
Take Rhian Brewster, for example. Liverpool’s 17-year-old starlet is known for his composure that extends beyond his age, but one incident caused a brief spark of anger deep inside his core. During a UEFA youth fixture against Spartak Moscow, Brewster was the target of a vile racial epithet hurled from the mouth of Spartak’s captain, Leonid Mironov. The European governing body decided an “EqualGame” banner at Spartak’s next youth fixture was a worthy punishment, a pitiful ruling that drew harsh criticism. Although Mironov could be banned for 10 games if he is found guilty, on-pitch incidents are difficult to prove.
Alongside harsher fines and bans, the Football Against Racism in Europe organization advocates a supplementary punishment. Their eastern European development officer, Pavel Klymenko, supports an initiative that would require Spartak’s youth players to enroll in an anti-discrimination course. Racism is an intellectual construct, and just as it is learned, it must be unlearned. If racism is tackled at the core, corrected instead of just fined, it can eventually be eradicated from the sport.
For all the beauty of the game, it is disappointing that UEFA remains determined to not punish racism fiercely. It is disappointing that a teenager can recall seven distinct occasions of racial abuse before his professional career has even begun. It is disappointing that so many of his grievances have been ignored by the European governing body. Brewster calls UEFA’s “EqualGame” punishment a “slap on the wrist,” calling for a more severe ruling. At 17, his disillusionment with authority couldn’t be more plain, as he recalls thinking “fuck the system” on his way down the tunnel after the Spartak game.
If a 17-year-old can’t inspire change, UEFA is a lost cause. Discrepant fines, blatant ignorance, and phony anti-racism campaigns are all just a part of the show. As for Brewster, he now knows the debilitating feeling of being brushed under the carpet and wishes the organization would pay more than just lip-service to the core issue at hand. Despite disciplinary proceedings increasing throughout the past 5 years, more active measures need to be taken to stamp out the pockets of racism that risk flaring and spreading across the continental body.
Taking a Closer Look
The biggest culprits in failing to provide a viable cure for infectious racism are the individual leagues themselves. Although the federations that govern the sport as a whole are lackluster to say the least, certain nations are especially culpable in the crime of allowing the spread of such a vile infection. In Europe, Italy, Spain and France are the biggest offenders, repeatedly displaying a lack of integrity and morality as they choose to allow racism to go unpunished.
We’ll start off in Italy with the Serie A. One of the most prominent examples of racial incidents that precipitated worldwide outrage occurred last season during a match between Cagliari and Pescara. Ex-Milan player Sulley Muntari was the target of racist chants throughout the match, and when he brought his case to Daniele Minelli in the 89th minute, the man in yellow told him he was deaf to such abuse;instead, booking the Ghanaian for dissent. Incensed at such apathy from the man who controls the game, Muntari exited the pitch and was shown a red card for his actions. What followed after the game illustrates a recurring trend in racial incidents in Italy. Afterwards, Muntari was treated like a criminal by Italian authorities, with the league siding with Cagliari after the incident. It’s troubling cases like Muntari’s that are indicative of a broader pattern of racial abuses in Italian domestic football.
Kevin Prince Boateng, Mario Balotelli, and Antonio Rüdiger are just a handful of players who have been the targets of loathsome, detestable racial attacks from Italian fans. One reason why racism encounters such little opposition in Italy is because the men at the top portray racist tendencies themselves. For instance, in 2014, Carlo Tavecchio was elected the president of Italian football, even after his campaign was marred by racist accusations. Tavecchio made a comment about African players eating bananas prior to his election, but he still easily disposed of other candidates. This attitude towards racism in the upper echelons of the Italian hierarchy creates a trickle-down effect that leads to leniency and inaction.
People in Italy have simply grown accustomed to lenient views on racism. Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paulo, referred to Mario Balotelli as “the family’s little black boy.” In Italy, ‘ultras,’ the most passionate and fanatical supporters of the clubs, often wield great influence. They decide what is to be sung, and often keep police at bay with the looming threat of a beatdown. Football, race, and politics are a combustible mix in Italy, and a solution for preventing the cataclysmic explosion remains unknown.
Traveling to Spain, one will find that the racism situation in La Liga isn’t any better. One look at the recent conflict between Espanyol and Barcelona will give you a clear glimpse into the bigger picture in Spanish football, and the picture amounts to a canvas of chaos. After Barcelona knocked Espanyol out of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, both Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets took sly digs at their rival side. Pique referred to them as “Espanyol de Cornellá,” poking fun at the location of Espanyol’s stadium. Busquets made a similar reference, relishing in the jubilation of victory. These comments were taken at heart by Espanyol, who were severely offended by such unabridged statements. The club released a statement claiming Pique and Busquets’ comments “flirted very dangerously with xenophobic attitudes” that “clearly incite violence and intolerance.”
Stoking the already blazing fire, the third Catalan Derby in as many weeks took place on a waterlogged pitch that inspired more rugby than football. Challenges flew in, tensions sparked, and words were exchanged, but the climax came after the whistle, throwing Samuel Umtiti into rage. Held back by his centre back partner, the Frenchman alleged that Espanyol’s Sergio García called him a “black shit.” Soon after the game, García’s Instagram apology fell short of the mark, as he used the “I can’t be racist because I have black friends” excuse. La Liga president Javier Tebas was quicker than Usain Bolt in denouncing Pique’s “shush” celebration, but remained oddly silent on the racial incident that allegedly occurred.
The excuse of “what is said on the pitch, stays on the pitch” is thrown around a lot in Spanish football by players, and many referees have dismissed mid-game complaints from players about racial chants. A disappointing track record, combined with weak regulations and an insistence on hard evidence, speaks volumes to the dire racism issue that continues to plague Spanish football. In a nation where the majority of registered hate crimes are motivated by racism, there will obviously be a cascading effect into Spain’s most popular sport. Dr. Carles Vinas puts it perfectly: “there is racism in Spanish society, and football is a mirror of society.” A lack of education, populist rhetoric, and the trends of history fuel Spain’s fire of racism, and the embers jump to the dry brush awaiting in football.
In France, just as in the previous two countries, the same odd juxtaposition occurs: the victim is constantly punished, whilst the perpetrator remains relatively unscathed. Such was the case with Mario Balotelli and referee Nicolas Rainville when the latter booked the former for gesturing toward Dijon fans after being the target of monkey chants. After the game the referee claimed to be deaf to the racist insults and an investigation into the incident has been opened. Balotelli was also a target of racist chants last season at the hands of Bastia fans, but the consequence was only a 3-match stadium closing.
Racism runs throughout hierarchies in France. For instance, in 2006, Georges Freches, president of Langedoc-Roussillon, said he was ashamed of France and that the national team would soon be “eleven black people,” something he clearly couldn’t come to terms with. A few years back, a leaked recording revealed that members of the French Federation discussed the possibility of capping the amount of Arab and black players accepted into the French football academies.
One of the biggest controversies in French football involves the saga between Didier Deschamps and Karim Benzema. Benzema, Real Madrid’s prolific striker, hasn’t featured for his country since 2015, with Deschamps preferring Olivier Giroud and others. Although Deschamps claims his continued omittance is for preserving squad harmony, Benzema and Eric Cantona believe it to be affected by his north African roots. In an interview with MARCA, Benzema claimed that Deschamps had “bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France.” Not only is Ligue 1 plagued by racism, but France’s international scene is, as well, a testament to a divided political scene.
Whether it’s FIFA or UEFA, La Liga or Serie A, major governing bodies in football are refusing to take a firm stance on racism. As far-right movements are springing up across the world and gaining traction, racism and xenophobia are on the rise. Developing forms of technology, such as social media, have provided racists with a platform to promote their bigotry. It only takes one look at the replies on Paul Pogba’s Instagram posts to recognize how racism has infiltrated the global football community. In times where we stand most divided, the leading football organizations should be striving to eradicate racism. Such an issue should be a priority for all those who want to spread the joy associated with the beautiful game, and it shouldn’t take continued racial incidents to catalyze change. Every time a footballer is racially abused, we all stand at fault while the pureness of our cherished sport becomes further tainted.
Sanctions and bans must be strengthened. Investigations must be more thorough and comprehensive. Mission statements should reflect actual policy. Most importantly, we must attack the disease at its source. FIFA, UEFA, and individual leagues should focus on the implementation of anti-discrimination prerequisite courses for all registered players as a method to prevent or deconstruct racism before it becomes second nature in the minds of professionals. By restricting the polluting effects of racism prior to its entrance into the game, we can take one big step to restoring the beauty in our beautiful game.
Writer: Brandon Duran/@alcxntara6